Beyond the BMD, who am I?

My wandering through family history seems to move forward in fits and starts. There’s probably a pattern to that waxing and waning, and exploring it may add to an earlier post reflecting on the why of it all (see If you don’t know where you are going). And you can see my attempt at a potted historical account of what I have been doing on this blog and how that has evolved over time outlined in the about section of this site. It includes the following explanation of what appears to be the two sides of it, or at least for me:

  1. Pokemon-like genealogy of who begat whom, where and when: the gotta catch them all of ancestor BMD (Birth, Marriages and Deaths), and what now goes on over at the family tree collaboration I co-facilitate with my cousin Hamish Maclaren (see more about this here).
  2. Social sharing of stories, photographs and content with others: that’s what this blog is still mostly about – hence containing anecdotes, discoveries, encounters, observations, notes and reflections like this one.

As an erstwhile academic in the arts for a short period and longer one guest lecturing, the possibility of post-rationalising this all as some form of ‘practice research’ has been in the back of mind, and I even considered whether it might be the basis for a creative non-fiction PhD. That’s something I have discussed often over coffee with Ivan Pope, who has also taught at art schools and is currently finalising his. He helped kick start my career in the early internet, as well as many others. He now lives nearby, so I’m always fascinated to hear what he’s currently exploring and way he’s doing so. That invariable rewires the way I think about how I go about my own exploring and not just what I have been doing family history-wise on here.

Our recent conversations have wandered through psychogeography, critical theory and beyond. Can’t say I understand all of it more than superficially, because although I did study Philosophy it was a long time ago and I never completed my degree. But it has made me realise I am definitley drawn more towards the social philosophy side of family history than the socio-economic way that more scholarly history is often framed. That’s because it is the stories that I find more fascinating, hence this blog having increasingly become more of an experiment in ways of presenting those I’ve found and share on here. This includes my mother’s reflections on her childhood in Lancasthire that formed part of her D.Phil in Creative Writing from Sussex University that she completed in her 70s (see here). And that’s been another prompt for thinking about how I might do something more academically inclined later down the line based on what I am doing here, as well as what the research approach to that might be and the question it attempts to answer.

My discussions with Ivan have also touched upon how different analytical lenses can be used to explore ‘place,’ almost like a series of layers placed over a map-like grid. Something similar could be used to explore those who inhabit them, which in my case would be relevant ancestors. And those analytical lenses could cut across the arts, humanities and social sciences. But the reality for me is that doing so hasn’t progressed much beyond the plotting of a fantasy road trip in the highlands and mini-break in the midlands.

I could add a longer list but if those trips do ever happen then there’s no reason why they couldn’t be conceived in more analytical way that Ivan and I have discussed. But right now the ancestral connection is simply a reason for adding them to a bucket list that adds another justification for the visit beyond just enjoying the break, sight-seeing and scenary.

Approaching this all in more scholarly way may, however, be just a pipe dream. Part of me is hesitant about really committing to turning what I do here into a something more academic like a doctorate and not least because the critical analysis could be tortuous without any clear reward (or progression route beyond itself). And right now I am enjoying a far looser form of ‘reflective practice’ that doesn’t need any justification beyond the enjoyment as a hobby.

That includes thinking about how some of my interest in all this was triggered in my childhood. For example, the photo albums and scrap books that were lying around containing mysterious relatives from turn of the century onwards, including the one of my great great aunt I have been publishing on here. And as I have reflected previously, connected to that is how I can’t help notice that this blog is increasing resembling the Jackdaw learning folders of contemporary historical documents compiled by John Langdon Davies I enjoyed as child… and way more so than anything I was forced to learned in history at school (1066 and all that). I still own the Battle of Britain one below:

That folder sits on shelf alongside annuals of TV shows and comics from the late 60s and 70s. They all share something in common, and that’s the way they present stories and other related content in different ways. And the example from the Eagle below helps illustrate this because the cutaway diagrams were equally as interesting as the comic strips (often more so with the Eagle):

But I also think one of those childhood triggers may also be because I was facinated not just by the artefacts mentioned above, but also the anecdotes about kith and kin I heard from my mother and grandmother. These included the Commando action and adventure comic-like exploits of my uncles in WW2. That’s actually the oldest and most ancient form of family history there is (and maybe storytelling for that matter). In Scotland it has legal significance because the oral genealogical history in a what’s called a ‘sloinneadh’ was the basis for semi-recent proof of the current chiefship of the MacDonald/MacDonnell of Keppoch clan albeit ‘for aught yet seen’ (see more here). That surprised me because there’s one thing even my amateur family history research has shown me. And that’s that truth can get in the way of a good story. The reality is that I’ve rarely found oral family history being particularly accurate. More often than not, the accounts are romanticised versions, distorted through the grapevine even when the stories are told are about what is within the living memory of those telling them, e.g. WW2. Just saying.

What I am beginning to think is that the truth of those stories may not be as important as I once thought, having discussed this all at length with another old friend I meet regularly for coffee (also previously involved with the arts, creative industries and early internet). And that’s because what I actually find fascinating about those family stories, and family history more broadly, is my connection to it all (both in my childhood and now).

I’ll come back to this, but as an aside my mother’s poetry is also part of that more ancient oral tradition of family history, particularly those about her family. I have other ancestors who were poets whose poetry was firmly rooted in a cultural tradition that connected them to both ‘place’ and their ancestors who had inhabited it (and those two things playing an important role in their sense of identity). For example, my 3x great aunt Alice Claire Macdonell was Bardess to the Clan MacDonald Society and also claimed to be chieftainess of the MacDonald of Keppoch Clan mentioned above. She was arch Jacobite who wrote a popular poem about Culloden that was inspired by her direct descent from the Keppoch chief that died at the battle there. That’s why I very much doubt she would have considered the Court of the Lord Lyon as having any authority as far as her claim to the clan chiefship was concerned, unlike the current chief. I digress, but her poem ‘Lochaber for ever’ below is good example about poetry being linked to ‘place,’ her family history and her connection to both (as indicated in the title of the book it appears in below):

In all thy moods I love thee,
In sunshine and in storm;
Lochaber of the towering bens,
Outlined in rugged form.
Here proud Ben Nevis, snowy crowned,
Rests throned amidst the clouds;
There Lochy’s deep and silvery wave,
A royal city shrouds;
Whose waters witnessed the escape
Of coward Campbell’s dastard shape,
Disgrace eternal reap:
Whilst fair glen Nevis’ rocks resound,
With “Pibroch Donald Dubh” renowned,
From Inverlochy’s keep.
Grey ruined walls, in latter years,
That saw the great Montrose,
MacDonell’s, Cameron’s men led forth,
To victory ‘gainst their foes.
Oh! Lochaber, dear Lochaber,
The rich red afterglow
Of fame that rests upon thy shield,
Unbroken records show.
“O, Lochabair, mo Lochabair fhein gu bràth.” …

In all thy moods I love thee,
But I think I love thee best,
When the moon is rising slowly
Behind Beinn Chlinaig’s crest;
To list the plaintive owlet calling,
When the woods are very still,
The gentle plash of waters falling,
Ringing, rhyming, down the hill;
So rich with flowers the river braes,
Whose honeyed perfume scents the ways,
Sweet lingering on the air.
Wild purple bloom the heather shows,
O’er hanging rocks the rowan grows,
Where scarce a foot may dare:
Enough it is among thy braes,
To dream, to breath, to live;
With the soul’s repose of trustfulness,
Whate’er the future give;
Across the hazy distance,
Thy children look and long,
For thy spell is found resistless,
And their hearts beat true and strong.
“O, Lochabair, mo Lochabair fhein gu bràth.”
(“O, Lochaber, my own Lochaber for ever.”)

By Alice MacDonell, from Loyal Lochaber and its associations historical, genealogical, and traditionary, by W. Drummond Norie, with an introductory poem by Alice C. MacDonell (Glasgow: Morison Brothers, 1898)

My mother’s writing about her childhood in Lancashire is along similar lines, hence why I have published it as a collection on here along with some of her poems and those of other relatives and ancestors (see more here).

Apologies again for my Tristan Shandy-like wandering off in seemingly random direction(s). But my digressesion is connected to my discussions with the friend mentioned above. He’s been looking at his family history in very different way that’s been more about nature/nuture having been adopted. And not least because his eventual meeting with his biological parents and siblings highlighted shared traits that are seemingly genetically inherited.

His theory is that despite coming at this from different direction what we are both doing is essential asking the same question and that’s ‘who am I?’ And when you start looking at ancestors that get’s mirrored and so the question becomes ‘who are they?’ And ultimately that becomes ‘who are we?’

What he is getting at is our ancestors could be seen as a baton race and we are only alive because enough of them stayed alive long enough to have offspring that survived and so on. That begs the question what did it actually take to do so in those times. His proposition being that there’s some kind of similarity between us and them, and that inherited traits may have been more relevant in certain times than others in helping us to adapt and survive. But I also think he is obliquely saying ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’ and not least because doing so with our ancestors becomes a form of ‘presentism’ (where we judge past actions by todays ideas and current thinking). The twist he introduces is that part of who they were is us now, and so how would we have behaved differently if we found ourselves in their shoes back then. And asking that question is a way of avoiding what the historian David Hackett Fischer calls the “fallacy of nunc pro tunc” (now for then).

I am not one for genetic determinism despite being fascinated by genetic genealogy and the idea that shared/inherited traits might be a more interesting way of thinking about ancestry than the BMD of family trees. But that twist he introduces hangs heavy when exploring certain aspects of family history, e.g. my recent posts on slave owning ancestors. And that certainly focuses the mind on how one behaves in the here and now.

Anyway, food for thought and possibly connected to what I was saying about a possible lens – pyschoanaltical one in this case – to be applied when looking at my ancestors and the worlds in which they inhabited, i.e. because how they adapted to them has ultimately resulted in me. Maybe there’s a possible research question for more academic practice-type research in this and, who knows, even an answer to the riddle about the why of this all that I’ve been pondering for some time now.

What my friend seems to be suggesting may also explain why I am more interested in the stories I discover through my informal and erratic research than the hatches, matches and despatches of genealogy. And maybe, if I understand what I think he’s telling me correctly, that’s because when we discover those stories about our ancestors it can shines a light on the ones we tell ourselves, i.e. about who we think we are. That would make the the BMD side of genealogy a means to self-discovery ends.

But there is another aspect to all this that’s linked to my interest in family history being partly motivated by the stories I discover through my exploring of it. That’s captured in this opening sentence of a blog post I came across:

Sometimes in family history research wandering down an unrelated byway reveals a story you could not have invented.

Murder most foul, by Anne M Powers on A Parcel of Ribbons (19/1/2013)

I’ve quoted it a few times because the irony was not lost given the tale of ‘murder most foul’ I found and how I came upon it (the chasing of the BMD of my ancestors down rabbit holes). It also seems to be becoming more of a ‘thing’ and particularly as I have wondered down unrelated byways when exploring my slave owning ancestors recently. Not sure how that fits in with my friend’s joining of dots between family history and personal identity in the philosophical sense, but it struck me as an interesting basis for work of creative non-fiction – possibly a meandering shaggy dog story (not unlike Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman featured at the top of this page). If only I could write that well.

5 thoughts on “Beyond the BMD, who am I?

  1. Well, Justin, you are indeed waxing philosophically. I believe that many of us feel the way you do in your expressive review of your genealogical wanderings.

    I see the glimmering of a research paper cum degree regarding the nature of personal identity from a genealogical perspective. I wonder how many of us who follow your excellent blog think and feel the way you have expressed yourself in this post?. I know that I certainly do.

    Consider the possibilities.


    1. Huge thanks for the comments David. I put these things out there with zero idea about they might be received. There’s no editorial board acting as a filter say to hold on chap, so it can seem very hit and miss.

      So great to hear that some of this my resonate with others. And, who knows, maybe kinship is an aspect of all this.

      Best and cheers


      1. Justin. I concur with your reference to kinship.
        The industrial revolution caused such a technical and societal upheaval and restructuring of individual and family lives, as has done the post industrial age (for better or worse), that we as individuals have been drawn away from our roots, both by choice and necessity. However, I believe that within each person there has remained a small ember of “Who am I? “ism waiting to be fanned to life. This is noted in the ongoing and increasing interest in both genealogy and heraldry.

        This curiosity and interest has never completely disappeared, but has been a somewhat low key interest in our “Modern/post modern” society. I am not saying that we necessarily want to return to tribalism to satisfy our social and psychological needs (well not most of us), but there keeps springing up in individuals the question of, “Who am I really? Where do I really come from?”, etc. So, back to self identity and the kinship connection. It never goes away. In part, this is exemplified by the responses to your blogs. connected me with our purported common ancestor, Ralph (Rolph, etc) Bridtwissel (in all its various spellings) of about 1160. I have not seen the documents for this ancestor, but it is the best we have for now. As you may imagine, when I did my own document search and got to Daniel Birtwistle – 1843-1917, my 2nd great grandfather, I was connected by all the work done by William, Alan, et al. back to c1160. This also led me to your blog about our family’s downward social mobility. All of the above led back to Ralph and I was genetically (hopefully), genealogically, and in one sense, spiritually home. After all, why are we driven to find our ancestors if not to find ourselves?

        The above naturally led me to I continued with my heraldic searches into armigerous Birtwistles which I have addressed on your blog.

        Yes, I know, a bit wandering, but my perspective nonetheless.

        All the best on the great adventure,

        Wolfhound Cottage

    1. Thanks, Justin. My pleasure. We are all in this together and/or separately,

      Really enjoyed the ADHD comments, Referred the hunter-gatherer vs farmer perspective to our our daughter and one of our sons who both have children Dx with ADHD in one form or another. Alternate views help, or, another rabbit hole to explore.

      Radio 4 gave me a very different perspective on slavery and the British individual (then and now) and
      the Kurt Vonnegut video was priceless, even if rejected for a university thesis.

      I must say that I really enjoy your research and views, all of which add to our story/ies ( our family wanderings through yours). I hope that these postings trigger many responses from the “Family” and add to the depth of the blog.


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